Circa 1953– James Dean, in his days as a young, struggling stage and TV actor, here in his modest fifth-floor walk-up at 19 West 68th Street, NYC. The bull horns and matador cape were of special meaning to James Dean. He had read the novel ‘Matador’ by Barnaby Conrad, and for a while was obsessed with dramatizing it as an internal monologue without words, using just a few props. Dean also loved to play his bongo drum along to jazz records late into the night. He hung with a small, close-knit circle of actor/artist friends– among them was a young Martin Landau. Photograph by Dennis Stock for LIFE magazine.
At first New York overwhelmed me,” said James Dean. “I was so confused that I strayed only a couple of blocks from my hotel off Times Square, to go to the movies.”
He was twenty in October 1951, and he had spent all but five years of his life in rural Indiana. The only child of a shotgun wedding, the myopic, shy farm boy had come East to pursue his fortunes as an actor. Idolizing the disaffected sensuality of Marlon Brando and struck by the moody ambiguity of Montgomery Clift, Dean longed to transform his worship of those stars into an inheritance of their fame. But all his agent could obtain for him was a temporary job as a rehearsal assistant for the television game show Beat the Clock, for which he tested the zany stunts planned for prospective contestants.
Until 1953 Dean was often difficult to locate: He rented a dozen hotel rooms in midtown, none of them for more than a few weeks at a time. There was, he thought, good reason to be elusive, for his private life was often unconventional and messy. At last he settled into a cheap fifth-floor walk-up at 19 West 68th Street, a tiny chamber with space only for a daybed, a built-in desk and a hot plate; there was no kitchen, and the common bath was down the hallway. Guests invariably found his room cluttered with empty beer bottles, half-eaten cans of food, unsleeved records and dog-eared books.
Eventually Dean landed roles in live television dramas. Mostly he had only brief, insignificant walk-ons, but among the few exceptions was a poignant performance as a misunderstood, love-struck youngster in The Thief, with Mary Astor, Paul Lukas and Diana Lynn. Patient directors found him a serious professional eager to succeed, but those who had no time for his improvisations on the set were exasperated at his selfishness. Still, he was nothing like a star, and survival was a struggle.
During the steamy days of summer and the bitter evenings of winter, he liked to sketch and sculpt (for which he had genuine talent), or he simply roamed the streets of Manhattan, scouring bookstores, observing passersby. Sometimes he took a dance class with choreographer Katherine Dunham; often he pounded his bongo drums at smoke-filled jazz clubs. He became a member of the Actors Studio, but after Lee Strasberg offered a critique of his first effort, Dean stormed out and—returning only a few more times—eventually quit.
With buddies like the young composer Leonard Rosenman, Dean could often be found hunched over a cup of coffee at Cromwell’s Pharmacy in Rockefeller Center, more often he sat alone, downing beers at Louie’s Tavern in Sheridan Square. Frequently he met other hopeful apprentices for a cheap plate of spaghetti at Jerry’s Bar and Restaurant on Fifty-fourth Street or a bowl of chicken soup at Riker’s on Fifty-seventh. Money came from the occasional TV job or from his aunt and uncle in Indiana, who had been surrogate parents since Dean was nine, when his mother died and his father virtually abandoned him.
Dean’s Broadway debut occurred in December 1952, in N. Richard Nash’s turgid drama See the Jaguar. His performance as a backward seventeen-year-old country boy won the attention of New York’s critics but no immediate job after the play’s five performances. In February 1954 he brought an insidious charm to the role of the seductive Arab houseboy in an adaptation of André Gide’s The Immoralist—an appearance that earned him a place among the most promising personalities named by the editors of Theatre World.
In the audience one evening was Paul Osborn, who had just finished the screenplay of John Steinbeck’s sprawling novel East of Eden and, with director Elia Kazan, was looking to cast the picture.
Hastily, screen tests were arranged, and James Dean was signed by Warner Bros. and whisked to Los Angeles. His subsequent performance as the lonely Cal Trask, alienated from his mother and rejected by his father, struck resonant chords with unsettled youngsters the world over. There was no more foraging for food money, but he was still a lonely wanderer in Hollywood. “New York is where I really am,” he said, even though he now worked in Los Angeles.
From May 1954 through September 1955, Dean made three pictures for Warner Bros. Outside the studio he nurtured a passion for the latest racing cars and earned a few trophies. When he died at the wheel of his Porsche on a lonely stretch of California highway on September 30, 1955, he was only twenty-four. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) and Giant (1956) were not yet released, but East of Eden had been a huge success, and Dean was considered the most exciting new star in Hollywood.
Dean displayed an inchoate, unrefined talent, but within the borders of his limitations there was something of both the perplexed sensitivity of Clift and the cool contempt of Brando, to whom he was inevitably but favorably compared. Humphrey Bogart, with his usual sardonic imperturbability, said that if Dean had lived longer, “he’d never have been able to measure up to his publicity.”
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